The other day I ran into a wonderful word I hadn’t been familiar with, chunter: “To mutter, murmur; to grumble, find fault, complain” (OED). It’s been around since the 16th century and has some great 20th-century citations:
1921 D. H. LAWRENCE Sea & Sardinia iv. 135 A thin old woman.. was chuntering her head off because it was her seat.
1949 C. FRY Lady’s not for Burning 27 You.. fog-blathering, Chin-chuntering, liturgical,.. base old man!
1957 ‘N. SHUTE’ On Beach i. 2 The baby stirred, and started chuntering and making little whimpering noises.
1965 Spectator 5 Mar. 295/3 An old man.. chunters a bit of folk tune which the solo horn dreamily perpetuates.
And in Nabokov’s Pushkin commentary I ran into yet another of his annoying archaisms dredged up to delight himself and perplex everyone else: pedee “A serving boy, a groom, a lackey” (sample cite: 1779 B. BENDO Matrimonial Museum 53 And lo! the pedee dare not speak, for fear He should the trollop’s mind displease). What exactly is the problem with serving boy, groom, or lackey, Vladimir Vladimirovich? (I would probably still find it irritating if I encountered it in one of his novels, but in a novel you’re entitled to play with language however you like; in a reference work designed to help the ordinary reader of English appreciate Pushkin, there’s no excuse for it.)


  1. John Emerson says

    I may have mentioned this before, probably several times, but the Vladivostok-to-St. Petersburg-to-Berkeley Sinologist Peter Boodberg also loved to use little-unknown archaisms, compounds, and neologisms to translate Chinese words with no exact English equivalent. Maybe it’s a sort of Russian Formalist affectation.
    “Marchmount” and “childe” are the only ones I remember immediately, but you can often tell a UCB Sinologist by Boodbergian shibboleths. Edward Schafer was probably the most eminent of his many disciples.

  2. Not a word that one would want to use a lot nowadays, anyway. The first thing it reminds me of is “pédé”.

  3. I grew up with ‘chuntering’ to the extent that I read the article’s title as nothing more than vaguely whimsical. My childhood was spent in the North-East of England in the Eighties, though; perhaps it’s peculiar to that region.

  4. I’m familiar with the term chuntering meaning “that thing computer hard drives do where they make a lot of noise”. I’m curious, now, as to a) whether this sense is widely recognized (and in what geographical distribution), and b) whether it’s the same word as the above or a separate development.

  5. Tom Wootton says

    Chuntering, for reasons not entirely clear to me, is frequently used of dissatasfied bowlers in cricket, muttering away angrily to themselves.

  6. Tom Wootton says

    Chunter is frequently used in cricket commentary to describe dissatisfied bowlers muttering angrily away to themselves, after a piece of inept fielding, say.

  7. Vance Maverick says

    Sounds like the reasons became clear to Tom, sometime between 2:51 and 2:53.

  8. marie-lucie says

    re pedee:
    Let me hazard a guess. The quotation is from 1779, and the context suggests that he belongs to a lower class, since he is feeling intimidated by a sharp-tongue ‘trollop’. I wonder if pedee could be an adaptation of Italian piedi meaning ‘feet’, and if the man or boy in question is a kind of footman, in French valet de pied. Looking up the ‘footman’ entry on Wikipedia, and its (very different) counterpart entry in Italian (as well as an online dictionary), there is no exact translation for either the French or English words but English ‘footmen’ is explained as corridori a piedi, literally ‘runners on feet’. Aristocratic young men doing their Grand Tour of Europe typically travelled with one or two menservants but also hired local staff in cities where they stayed for longer than a few days, and sometimes brought some of them home with them. I wonder whether the pedee could have been an Italian footman brought back to England, where he might have felt in an awkward position in an English-speaking household, for instance not being able to give a suitable reply to a trollop’s tirades. Referring to him as the pedee would have differentiated him from English footmen.

  9. I had never heard of chuntering until reading this essay which uses it twice. This item is the second search result other than dictionaries.

  10. When I got to “I am a libertarian, a neopagan materialist, an unabashed Heinleinophile…” my eyes rolled straight back into my head and I found myself unable to concentrate on the rest of the essay in any very focused manner.

  11. John Cowan says

    Umm, well, yes; that’s Eric S. Raymond. Once he and I were friends, though not since 9/11 when he lost his marbles.

  12. On the topic of chunter, I first ran across the word from John Bercow, the British Commons Speaker, for whom “chuntering from a sedentary position” is a favorite phrase.

  13. I wonder if pedee could be an adaptation of Italian piedi meaning ‘feet’, and if the man or boy in question is a kind of footman

    I don’t know why I didn’t look it up back in 2008, but the OED agrees with m-l: “Perhaps a borrowing from Latin. Etymons: Latin ped-, pēs, pede.”

  14. Oh, and it’s pronounced /ˌpiːˈdiː/, /ˈpiːdiː/ (“peedee,” stress on either syllable).

  15. Pee Dee (usually spelled “Pedee” in colonial times, apparently) is the name of an Indian tribe in the Carolinas. The tribe also gave its name to a major river, to the northeast part of South Carolina, and to a number of other geographical features in the region. The name is believed to derive from a tribal endonym, but the original form used by the tribe is not known. The tribe’s language was probably Catawban (Eastern Siouan), but even that is just based on circumstantial evidence, so there is not a lot to go on.

  16. David Marjanović says

    So that’s where the Pee Dee Belemnite, the standard for carbon isotope ratios, was from!

  17. And as for the tribe:

    The meaning of name Pedee is unknown but is believed to be a Catawba language-term. Anthropologist Frank Speck believed the term may have derived from the Catawba term pi’ri, meaning “something good,” or pi’here, meaning “capable,” “expert,” or “smart.”

  18. Phonaesthemes at work: my brain keeps suggesting for this post’s title a reading as a locative (prolative?) about construction, with chunter being some kind of a verb of motion and pedee (or Pedee?) as some location. I’m tentatively mainly blaming verbs like saunter, putter, but maybe also √ped- + -ee readily suggests for the latter noun a meaning along the lines of “that which is walked on”.

  19. John Cowan says

    So, a group that calls itself not “the People” but “the Good Guys”. Thoroughly plausible.

  20. “My God, you think. The dam has boist. That character’ll chunter along like that for the duration.” —Theodore Sturgeon, “Bulkhead” (1955)

    Genre and pulp fiction must be a goldmine of lexicography.

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